Is American Evangelicalism on the Verge of Collapse? – A Response


In my previous post “Is American Evangelicalism on the Verge of Collapse?,” I included a series of links that responded to a study showing a decline in American Evangelicalism. Michael Spencer of riffed on the study, and Leith Anderson, the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, rebutted Spencer’s article. (I would encourage readers to check the previous post for details.)

I want to thank those readers who responded to my post. Today, I want to add my thoughts.

Back in the dim, distant past (the mid-’80s), when the show was actually still funny, I enjoyed watching Saturday Night Live. One of my favorite characters was Martin Short’s tobacco industry lawyer, Nathan Thurm. 'That's a lie! I never said that! Show me the papers....'A sweaty, nervous man with a pronounced twitch, Thurm would be interviewed by 60 Minutes-type investigative reporters and would dodge any question that made Big Tobacco complicit in the deaths of smokers. To Thurm, everything that came out of the interviewer’s mouth was a lie, no matter how true it might be. He would spin every statistic, turn damning statements into PR copy, and keep glancing nervously at the camera to see if the audience was buying his confabulations. Watching Thurm squirm and twist the facts egregiously made for the comedy.

But Leith Anderson’s update on Nathan Thurm should make none of us laugh. If anything, we should be crying at how blatantly he spins reality as he dodges painful truths. And I say that with a pronounced heavy heart. None of what follows gives me any joy.

In what ways does Anderson pull a Thurm?

1. Spencer’s article is aimed at the decline of Evangelicalism in the West, with the U.S. being a key focal point, as reflected in the ARIS study. This is Anderson’s response:

Evangelical Christianity is rapidly growing in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Traditionally Catholic South America is fast turning into an evangelical Pentecostal continent. Christians are multiplying by the millions in Communist China. And in the USA? The growing edge of almost every evangelical denomination is Hispanics. Many of the largest and fastest growing evangelical megachurches in this country are Hispanic, African American and Asian. While white megachurches have been around for a while many of these new ethnic megachurches are just getting started.

Excuse me, but since when is Anderson’s title president of the International Association of Evangelicals? It is true that Evangelicalism is growing in places once deemed “The Third World,” but that is not the West. And the East is not the area over which Anderson presides. In other words, he fails to speak directly to the Spencer article’s area of focus.

2. Anderson notes a positive trend in U.S. Evangelicalism: the rise of Hispanic Evangelicals.

My question: If polled, how many Evangelicals would say that we have too many Mexican immigrants in this country, especially of the illegal variety? I see that hand, and that one, and you over there, and you, and…boy, that’s a lot of hands going up.

I don’t think there has been a group screaming for tighter border control than Evangelicals. Seriously. In fact, immigration issues are on the forefront of the culture wars, right up there with  abortion.

Does Anderson truly believe the collection of people he oversees is supportive of the growth of Hispanic churches, many of them populated by people of suspect citizenry? Sadly, I suspect that many of the constituency would love nothing more than if the attendees of those churches went back to where they came from.

Also, the rapid growth of Hispanic Evangelical churches is no counter to the precipitous decline in all other Evangelical groups, as the ARIS survey shows. In other words, this is a dodge by Anderson.

3. Anderson notes the rise of Pentecostalism around the world as a positive sign for Evangelicalism.

Imagine you’re a kid again, and you form a club for kids your age. It will be the best club ever. No uncool kids, just your friends. Then your Mom catches a whiff of your plan and asks if your kid brother will be included. When you say no, because he’s a whiny little kid and your club is only for older kids who have it going on, Mom tells you right away that he’s either in or there will be no club. Shattered, you relent, though not without a kick at the kitchen table leg and a lot of mumbling.

As someone who has been associated with a number of Evangelical churches and ministries over the years, I can say with no hesitation that Pentecostals are considered the snotty-nosed kid brother in the Evangelical clubhouse. They may be in, but they are merely tolerated.

Too mean? Then ask how the largest Evangelical denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention, feels about their missionaries speaking in tongues. The fact that the mission board of the SBC tried to eliminate “Pentecostal-ish” members from serving is telling.

In fact, I suspect that the group of Evangelicals most ardent in their Evangelicalism would be aghast if people in their congregation spoke in tongues or claimed to have a word of knowledge, a gift of healing, or a prophecy to share. Evangelical churches split over such things.

So I find it disingenuous on Anderson’s part to hold up Pentecostalism as the bright, shiny hope of Evangelicalism worldwide, when a lot of Evangelicals wish that Pentecostals would stop crashing their club.

4. Anderson says its wrong to define Evangelicals by their political affiliations because the leadership isn’t political:

I have talked to thousands of evangelical pastors in almost every state and rarely have I heard any of them talk about politics. They talk about God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, salvation, evangelism, discipleship and a lot of other spiritual themes. The political label has been added mostly by the press, politicians and religious leaders not connected to or accountable to churches. If those who wrote the label now want to peel it off, most evangelical church leaders either won’t notice or won’t care because they are focused on what they’ve always been focused on–God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, salvation, evangelism, discipleship and a lot of other spiritual themes.

Even if one can say that pastors in Evangelical churches aren’t politics-minded (and that’s a stretch if one looks at the history of the Religious Right), there is no doubt that the people in the pews are. To be an Evangelical is to be a Republican. To be an Evangelical is to fight on the forefront of the culture wars, a battle that is waged politically.

The problem is that this battle has largely failed, as it was destined to do. Jesus alone changes hearts, government laws do not. If the people are ungodly, the laws will not turn their hearts to righteousness. When even James Dobson admits the battle is lost, it’s lost. And that admission is creating havoc in Evangelical ranks, because for too many people, the culture war (as fought through political means) defines their entire Christian faith. That political manueverings have largely failed may, in fact, be one of the reasons that those discouraged people are abandoning Evangelicalism. They want a vital relationship with God, not their elected officials.

Lastly, Anderson’s comments tell us nothing of the bigger picture.  George Barna has  published numerous polls that show that Evangelical pastors do not adequately reflect their congregations. The pastors ARE more spiritually minded than the people they serve. In addition, they are curiously unaware of this at times, rating themselves highly on their ability to transmit the Gospel to their charges in a life-changing way that forms those people into little copies of themselves. But Barna’s numbers show that the people in the seats are two-thirds less likely to actually espouse what the pastor believes, no matter how much the pastor believes it. That’s a pretty serious  disconnect in belief between the leadership and the average Joe or Jane Evangelical. Anderson should know this.

5. Anderson says that the best exhibition of Evangelicalism comes when bad times strike:

There is a very practical way to observe the depth of evangelical Christian faith across America. The next time there is a tragedy–tornado in a small town, shooting at a school, apartment fire in a major city–listen to what the survivors say on television. You will be impressed by frequently declared depth of Christian faith in Jesus when facing the harshest traumas of their lives. This is the evangelical faith that has spread across our land and will continue into the next generation.

To me, what you are at all times better reflects a changed life than what you are when the heat is on. If people only trot out their faith in disasters, can they truly be counted among the faithful? Remember the old line: There are no atheists in foxholes.

It’s a sad state of affairs when the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals has to stoop this low to find anything positive to say about the movement he leads.

6. Anderson points to new blood as a positive sign:

In the coming decade many older local congregations will go out of business. Of course they will, just as many older Christians will die and many older businesses will close. But, have you seen what is happening in your local elementary school on Sunday mornings? Across America there is a rapid spread of new churches meeting in schools, community centers, restaurants, theaters and any other rentable gathering place. Almost all of them are evangelical congregations with young pastors and young parishioners.

Folks, all we’re doing in the above is splitting existing congregations into tinier and tinier factions. We’re recycling people. We’re passing around the same people and calling that church growth. For every new church plant that starts with ten families, those ten families were most likely cannibalized from an existing congregation elsewhere. Evangelicalism is not growing in the United States, even when younger congregations led by younger people are factored in. This is the whole point of the ARIS report.

Frankly, I am stunned at the Thurm-job Anderson did in his rebuttal of Spencer.

We don’t need leaders like that heading anything. He said nothing that dealt with the reality of declining numbers. Nothing. With a wave of his hand and a few words, he dismissed it all.

Look, we need serious people who talk bluntly and truthfully. The best thing Anderson could have done is to kick some butts and take names, to admit that the culture wars and political wranglings have diluted the Gospel message and driven people away from or out of Evangelicalism. He could have talked about the necessary things Evangelicals can do to stop the hemorrhaging.

So if he won’t, I will:

1. Get serious about evangelism.

Isn’t the word evangel at the root of Evangelical? If so, why aren’t we evangelizing people? If Anderson wants to know why the world is turning Pentecostal it’s because the Pentecostals are still serious about evangelism when most others couldn’t care less. Go to an Assemblies of God church some Sunday and I’ll bet you they have a wall covered with photos of missionaries they support. Now go to a non-Pentecostal church (especially the vaunted Evangelical megachurch) and attempt to find that same wall. Missing, right? Hmm…

2. Get serious about discipleship.

When poll numbers come back showing that 85 percent of Christian youth who go to college apostasize by the time they graduate, that’s one serious problem. And the fault lies in the pathetic Christian education departments most churches run—if they run one at all. I can tell you that the demise started when churches fired all their paid, trained Christian ed staff and replaced them with volunteers. In the defense of those amateurs,  there’s nothing wrong with volunteers teaching, unless they’re amateurish. And most of them are. They’ll claim they don’t have the time due to career obligations (which is another issue) to devote to doing the job right, so they don’t. Too many do just enough to get by. And it shows.

The lack of a coherent vision for Christian education in our churches manifests in the complete lack of biblical worldview in all too many Evangelicals. Barna has repeatedly shown that pastors rate their flocks’ adherence to a Christian worldview almost three-times higher than the actual response numbers show from those in the pews. We have got to stop lying to ourselves on this issue. The people in the seats don’t know the Scriptures, so they have no coherent framework from which to make godly decisions about life.

We need a decisive, coherent, systematic, cradle-to-grave indoctrination into the Christian faith for every last person who claims the name of Jesus. But we’re simply not doing that in the West.

3. Drop the political rhetoric.

Neither major party in the United States adequately reflects the Gospel. There, I said it.

All the political wrangling in the world will not change the hearts of people. Jesus Christ does that, not Sarah Palin, and not Barack Obama.

If Evangelicals are sick of the direction this country is headed in, then they must stop trying to ramrod morality down the throats of the immoral through one piece of legislation or another. Instead, get out there and lead people to Christ. He’s the only change agent that truly works.

4. Get the focus off of Evangelicalism as a movement/culture.

Evangelicals spend far too much time navel-gazing. Being a Christian is not self-focused, but others-focused. Let me tell you, people today have a high B.S. meter, and they know disingeuousness when they see it. We don’t need to put any more impediments in their way to Jesus. It’s time to take the focus off ourselves and get some real humility. When Leith Anderson pulls a Nathan Thurm, he does a disservice to humility. Better to fess up when seriousness is called for than to cop out in an effort to be positive .

5. Stop the factionalization.

Evangelicalism is dying in the United States because it is splitting into smaller and smaller pieces that end up becoming less and less effective. Evangelicals have become so brand-conscious that we now have a niche church for every possible need, just like we have a coffee flavor for every single person living in America. Our military may be shilling an Army of One, but that’s what the Church here is becoming—to its detriment.  If we don’t find the commonality and quite sniping at each other, we’ll become increasingly irrelevent.

6. Give the lax an ultimatum.

Dead wood is hurting our churches. It’s also inflating the numbers. The Southern Baptists claim more than 40 million people on their rolls, but only 15 million actually attend church on a regular basis.  It’s time for churches to tell people to commit or go elsewhere. The Army of the Lord won’t function as intended if the majority of its soldiers are AWOL. There are no private Christians. You either join the group or suffer the consequences.

7. Stop talking, start doing.

The Western Church cannot endure if we talk and talk yet fail to practice that talk. If the lost are to ever know that we are Christians and what we say is truth, we have to walk the talk. And we need to severely chasten those who make excuses for the lack of walking. We don’t need that kind of talk. With all due respect to Leith Anderson, his talk in his rebuttal to Spencer’s article just plain stinks. Where is the call to repentance and practice? Isn’t that why he’s president of the NAE? Shouldn’t he be doing more than just glossing over the genuine unpleasantries that American Evangelicals must face if we are to turn this thing around?

Evangelicalism in on the decline because it loved itself too much and loved the lost too little. It didn’t take the Great Commission seriously, yawned at the plight of the disadvantaged, and spent too much time preening. When its leaders only promulgate those errors and ignore the hemorrhaging, then it probably needs to be kicked off the national stage until it remembers its lines again and learns how to act right.

17 thoughts on “Is American Evangelicalism on the Verge of Collapse? – A Response

  1. You know Dan, for a man I usually perceive to be extraordinarily meek, those were some incredibly strong words! I’m amazed at how direct you can be when your passion is stirred. Dead on, sir! Dead on.

    • Chris,

      You’re right. I normally make it my purpose not to go after individuals. My own sins are enough. We have too many other systemic problems to fix to resort to sniping at each other’s individual problems.

      However, I found Anderson’s spin to be egregious coming from someone in his position. Yes, leaders are supposed to be positive. But there’s being positive and there’s stashing the crazy aunt in the attic and acting as if she doesn’t exist. Anderson went for the latter—and in a secular news source that can easily deflate his rhetoric. That makes Evangelicals look bad.

      I also found his opening remarks about Spencer to be the kind of ad hominem attack that is not worthy of any kind of national leader, much less an Evangelical one. In one paragraph, Anderson compares Spencer to Hugo Chavez and implies that the “Evangelical collapse” is within Spencer himself. A more veiled reference is his little comment calling Spencer a “Kentucky writer” as opposed to one of the most-read writers on the Internet. As someone who lives a stone’s throw from Kentucky, that seemed tantamount to discrediting Spencer as some kind of hayseed scratching barely legible missives onto a piece of slate dredged up from the local “crick” with a piece of chalk he bought from the general store for a nickel. Rather than address the problems Spencer raises, Anderson blows off a reasoned response.

      As a pastor, Anderson should not shy away from the truth here. If he has a reasoned response to Spencer’s position, he should have used it. But he resorted to misdirection, obfuscation, and just about every trick in the book to keep from speaking to the truth. I find that reprehensible. I mean, the NAE was a mess after the Haggard fiasco, yet this is what we get as a replacement?

      Anderson had a great forum to make a point that could wake up the sleeping American Church. Instead, he went for another round of Ambien. Is there any further evidence needed to show that the United States is no longer the epicenter of the Christian world, and largely abandoned that role without a fight?

  2. Hi Dan,

    Good post,

    A couple of corrections for you.

    The Southern Baptists claim more than 40 million people on their rolls, but only 15 million actually attend church on a regular basis. It’s time for churches to tell people to commit or go elsewhere.

    For Southern Baptists Membership in 2008 was 16,228,438. Average worship attendance was 6,184,317. Attendance continues to grow at an average rate of 1% per year over the last 7 years.

    Also, the rapid growth of Hispanic Evangelical churches is no counter to the precipitous decline in all other Evangelical groups, as the ARIS survey shows. In other words, this is a dodge by Anderson.

    ARIS does not show a decline, which is probably where the disconnect is with Anderson. What it does show is that there is a significant generational horizon coming which will lead to significant decline in the coming years.

    ARDA however does show a decline. It’s data is represented as a percentage of the U.S. population, so it is showing a relative decline, rather than an absolute one.

    Hope this helps a little bit.


  3. Diane R

    I read Anderson’s rebuttal of Spencer last week and I absolutely agree with you. It was very weak and at times, as you point out in your post, completely off of the subject Spencer is talking about. I liked your comments as to the great distance between pastor and congregants. Ever since I stated going to evangelical churches (after my own conversion) 46 years ago, I’ve noticed that in every single church I’ve been, in whether large or small, the pastor just does not know the congregants, nor does he seem to want to. Therefore, he doesn’t know what really is going on with them.

    • Diane,

      I am fortunate to have a pastor who is very much “one of us.” That he worked most of his life in the car care industry and did not come to the ministry professionally is perhaps the telling factor.

  4. There is a reason why I read IMonk and I read Cerulean Sanctum. I prefer to be challenged to act on truth instead of to sweep it under the rug.

  5. Dan, this is absolutely great stuff. I hope it gets a wide hearing/reading. I had to laugh at being called the “snotty-nosed little brother”, (I actually did laugh out loud). I always thought of myself as the “red-headed” stepchild but that’s better.

    • Chris,

      I originally conceived Pentecostalism as the redheaded stepchild, but the little bro begrudgingly accepted into the club fits the concept I was looking for to a T.

  6. I like your 7 steps. Especially #6 (Give the lax an ultimatum). I realize it’s a delicate line to walk between allowing people to go to belong to the church and get involved at their own speed and allowing them to simply take up resources. It’s sometimes hard to identify the difference.

    But I think one of the most damaging things to Christianity, not just “evangelism” is the millions of people who call themselves Christians, yet don’t live a life of faith. How is someone who doesn’t believe in God tell the difference? It’s no wonder Christians have such a bad reputation.

  7. Jono

    I confess I’m neither an American nor an Evangelical so please don’t confuse this with an informed opinion.

    But if your synopsis of the average Evangelical is correct then it sounds like they are racially intolerant, snobishly disaproving of other denominations, politically affiliated, lazy in evangelism, factionalized and many are only nominal believers.

    I really don’t know if this is an accurate summary or not but if it is then what’s the problem with there being less of them?

    Almost sounds like the hand of God might be involved in this.

    • Jono,

      Other than the racially intolerant, I would say it fits quite well.

      Thankfully, it does not apply to all evangelicals. I am of the opinion that “if it is broke fix it, don’t throw it away.” There are many exceedingly good qualities to evangelicals as well.

  8. bob pinto

    I’m always late to the conversation…..

    I’m 51 and hardly have all the answers to this complex issue.

    My take is this: what was the take on this issue ten years ago? Promise Keepers was smoking hot and I was part of the Stand In The Gap gathering in DC of nearly a million people. There were pockets of revival in this country, although debated. Nobody thought there was a crisis in the making.

    I can’t help but think there have been periods of contractions and expansions, whether or not revival was involved. I believe this period of time to be a contraction.

    Michael Spencer, a fine and decent man, is a representative of the “buzzard Christian” who soars over the magnificent landscape and sees nothing but the dead carcase. A blog can be not unlike the news media. Say something positive, everyone is bored. Say something negative, like the sky is falling, and watch hits and comments go through the roof.

    I have seen new Christians being born all through my life. Some of these were people could have once been thought of as hopeless.

    Poll numbers about young Christians leaving the faith don’t tell the whole story. For years I heard stories of youths raised in the church, rebelling, and coming back later in life.

    The seven aforementioned points in your post are all good for any condition that the church is in.

    My personal theology is in constant flux as I try to evaluate what God is doing and I’ve tossed out a lot of ideas that just didn’t mesh with reality.

    As far as the topic goes on the Big Collapse, many people thoroughly agree unless its in their own back yard.

    ( I do like your posts and am sorry on the recent events in your household.)

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